WWU researchers watch harbor seals as they feast on spawning salmon

'The protection of one species might actually be impacting the ability for another species to recover.'

Each fall, the waters of Whatcom Creek fill with salmon, swimming from the ocean upstream to spawn. With the flood of salmon comes increasing numbers of seals in search of a feast, threatening the fragile salmon populations.

The complicated relationship between salmon and seals is of interest to the commercial and recreational fishing industries, tribal members and scientists alike. WWU graduate student Kathleen McKeegan and Professor of Biology Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez are working to discover the hidden dynamics of this relationship by carefully observing the seals’ hunting behavior from the air.

Harbor seal populations have increased since the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, making them an ecological success story; but while seal populations are thriving, salmon species with similar protections are not.

“The protection of one species might actually be impacting the ability for another species to recover,” said McKeegan. Throughout fall quarter, undergraduate research assistants collected data at the creek, taking pictures of the seals and recording their behavior, and paying particular attention to behavior related to hunting and foraging.

McKeegan and Acevedo-Gutierrez also teamed up with Huxley College’s David Wallin and Lummi Indian Business Council GIS Manager Gerald Gabrisch to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to watch the animals. McKeegan was particularly interested in the effects of a new acoustic hazing device meant to deter the seals from lingering near the hatchery fish ladder.

“When it’s on, the seals tend to stay a little further away, McKeegan says, “although that is not always the case.”

Photo by Rhys Logan, '11